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Translating Latin Mottos: University of Chicago and Duquesne University

written by: John Garger • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

Learn the literal translations of two Latin mottoes and how they compare with the official translations offered by the institutions of higher learning that use them.

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    Latin College Mottos

    In previous articles translating mottos from Latin to English, we have explored many common motto constructions. For example, nominative-genitive pairings, sentence fragments, and subjunctive mood mottos are quite common.

    In this article, we will explore university mottos that use different grammatical constructions and are more complex in nature. The mottos discussed below are longer than most Latin mottos and, therefore, present more of a challenge. In addition, we will explore the literal translations of the mottos versus those translations offered by the universities as the official translations.

    Often, Latin mottos are figuratively or metaphorically translated from their original Latin. Let’s explore the Latin mottos of two prominent universities and see how closely their official translations compare with the literal ones.

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    Translating the Latin Motto of the University of Chicago from Latin to English

    Translate Latin Motto - Crescat scientia vita excolatur The Latin motto of the University of Chicago is “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur” to which the university offers this official translation: “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.” Is it possible that such a poetic translation exists in this sparse Latin motto? Let’s dissect it and find out.

    “Crescat” is the third-person singular present active subjunctive form of the verb “cresco,” a third-conjugation verb that means “grow larger” or “increase.” Therefore, we can translate “crescat” as “let him/her/it increase.”

    “Scientia” is a feminine noun in its nominative singular form and means “knowledge.” Since this noun is in the nominative case, we know that it is the subject of the verb “crescat.”

    “Vita” is the nominative form of the word “vita” and can be translated as “life.” Since it is in the nominative case, we should assume that it is the subject of a verb to come later in the motto.

    “Excolatur” is the third-person singular present passive indicative form of the verb “excolo,” a third-conjugation verb that means “perfect” or “refine.” Therefore, we can translate “excolatur” as “he/she/it is being perfected.”

    Taken all together, a literal translation of “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur” is “Let knowledge increase; life is being perfected.”

    Certainly, the official translation offered by the University of Chicago is far more poetic. However, with a bit of grammatical license, the official translation is reasonable but much nicer.

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    Translating the Latin Motto of the Duquesne University from Latin to English

    The Latin motto of Duquesne University is “Spiritus est qui vivificat” to which the university offers this official translation: “It is the spirit that giveth life.” Again, let’s dissect this Latin motto and see how closely a literal translation compares with the official one.

    “Spiritus” is the nominative singular form of the fourth-declension noun “spiritus” which means “breath,” but it is often used to mean “spirit,” “courage,” or “character.”

    “Est” is the third-person singular present active indicative form of the verb “sum” which mean “he/she/it is (or exists).” “Sum” is the verb “to be” and is a crucial element to formation of so many Latin verbs.

    “Qui” is the nominative singular masculine form of “qui” which acts as a relative pronoun. Students of Latin will recognize “qui” as being part of “qui, quae, quod,” the masculine, feminine, and neuter forms of Latin’s relative pronouns. Consequently, “qui” can be translated as “that” but “who,” “which,” or “what” are also appropriate depending on context.

    “Vivificat” is an obscure Latin verb not often found except in the most comprehensive of Latin dictionaries; it is not found in most of the dictionaries used by elementary Latin students. It is where English gets the word “vivificate” which means to “give birth” or “give life.” As in English, this verb can be taken literally or figuratively. In its current third-person singular present active indicative form, the first-conjugation verb “vivificat” can be translated as “he/she/it gives life.”

    Taken all together, Duquesne University’s Latin motto “Spiritus est qui vivificat” can be translated literally as “It is spirit that is giving life.” The official translation “It is the spirit that giveth life” is nearly spot on with the university preferring the early modern English “giveth” to “is giving.”

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    Conclusion

    Sometimes a university offers a literal translation of its Latin motto, and sometimes a figurative or metaphoric translation is offered. Translations of the two Latin mottos of the University of Chicago and Duquesne University give an example of both. Still, both mottos are good practice for the Latin student to see that not all translations must be literal or follow grammatical rules exactly.

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